Refugees from Afghanistan are already arriving in the East Bay and local officials and community groups are scrambling to make their arrival as welcoming as possible.

U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Walnut Creek, met with members of Concord’s Noor Islamic and Cultural Community Center Tuesday afternoon, assuring them lines of communication are open and that the government is trying to re-connect families after the U.S. military recently completed its exit from Afghanistan and the Taliban returned to power after two decades.

DeSaulnier said 123,000 people have been evacuated from the country, and 151 local Afghan families have contacted his office about loved ones.

“I would anticipate that, as we identify the people who are out, then the State Department will be working with states, localities, and with (nonprofit groups) to identify where they want to go and where they have family members,” DeSaulnier said. “And Homeland Security and the State Department are reasonably adept at this when they have the names and the numbers, because then they have a contact person.

“For example, here. We have a contact person,” the congressman said.

The contact to whom DeSaulnier referred sat next to him: Sedique Popal, the president of the board of directors of the center, who is orchestrating a massive collection of care packages for refugees headed to the region.

Popal said 60 families arrived in the region last week, with another 25 people so far arriving in Contra Costa County this week.

“They are already here … I was told we can’t disclose the locations yet because they have to go through some screening, health-wise because of COVID, and they have to get vaccinated, and there’s a lot of things involved,” Popal said. “But we can’t wait here. We have to mobilize and prepare.”

Big ties to the Bay Area

DeSaulnier said he expected to know more later in the week concerning where people will be initially settling in the area.

“If history is any indication, these people go to communities where they have ties,” DeSaulnier said. “And there’s some big ties in the Bay Area. So I would assume when we look at this in (Washington) D.C., they’ll be going to those communities.”

DeSaulnier told about 20 people at the center that the government is still working on getting out those they can.

“That’s what we’re working on with the State Department, with urgency now. Next step is how do we continue to have a relationship to protect and help facilitate at getting people out who would like to and relocate to the United States,” he said.

Once that happens, DeSaulnier said it is up to all the various levels of government and community groups to come together to provide help for the newcomers.

“People are opening their homes in places like San Ramon and Danville, places with very expensive real estate. They are willing to give their two-bedroom apartment to Afghan refugees.”

Sedique Popal, Noor Islamic and Cultural Community Center

“To make sure no one’s lost and they get the services they need in a thoughtful, expeditious way,” he said.

DeSaulnier invited people to meet with his staff after the meeting to fill out forms meant to help track down loved ones still in Afghanistan who could be in danger.

“It’s awful and I’m really sorry,” DeSaulnier told one woman.

DeSaulnier said he believes the U.S. has a moral obligation to help relocate every Afghan who wants to leave.

“And that we facilitate that,” he said. “And facilitate, to me, means we put pressure on the Taliban and the governing people there to work with us to get them out. And if they don’t, they’re not going to have a working relationship with most of the world.”

He said the work has already started in the Bay Area.

“You hear stories all the time about the challenges of living in the Bay Area,” DeSaulnier said. “So, imagine a new immigrant. We’re keenly aware of the challenges for all our constituents.”

Staying connected

He said, “It’s making sure that we’re connected at a very trying time for the community and a trying time for the United States. At least in Contra Costa, we (are) working hand in glove to make sure we do everything we can to make this work for as many people as possible.”

Popal has six groups of volunteers gathering donations, based on age and needs. “They left the country with nothing but what they were wearing. So we planned to provide everything for them,” he said.

People have already been calling the center, offering housing, Popal said.

“People are opening their homes in places like San Ramon and Danville, places with very expensive real estate,” he said. “They are willing to give their two-bedroom apartment to Afghan refugees. There are people in Half Moon Bay that were giving us a two bedroom apartment on the waterfront. All over the Bay Area there are people who are opening their homes.”

For its care packages, the center is asking for new clothing of all sizes, socks, undergarments, sweaters and blouses, shirts, pants, skirts, and shoes. Toiletries needed include feminine products, diapers, baby wipes, soap, tooth brushes, and tooth paste. Housewares needed includes new blankets, new pillows, paper towels, napkins, prayer rugs, pots and pans.

Donations can be made online at the Noor Islamic and Cultural Community Center’s website. The center is located 4035 Treat Blvd. in Concord.